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'Tis the Season

How do we celebrate the holidays? In all sorts of creative ways. Here, gifts of love exchanged by families in open adoptions, along with an assortment of customs, crafts, and recipes just right for our multicultural families.

by Rochelle Green

Adoptive families can celebrate traditions from a variety of cultures. Here are some tips for planning your celebrations this holiday season.

Celebrating La Navidad

Posadas, Piñatas, and Pageantry

Many Latin American countries celebrate the story of Christ’s birth with weeks of wonderful processions, theatre, and religious ceremony. Some of these traditions have traveled to our country—to the Southwest states as well as to other Latino communities—so you may be able find local festivities that honor your child’s heritage. Or consider adding these traditions to your own.

Las Posadas: In Guatemala and Mexico, the Christmas season begins in mid-December with the tradition of Las Posadas (the inns). Children, dressed as Joseph and Mary, reenact their search for shelter by stopping at “inns” dispersed throughout the town to ask for lodging. They are repeatedly turned away until, finally, an innkeeper welcomes them, and a festive party ensues, with music, food, and, in Mexico, a piñata for the children.

This elaborate procession is repeated for nine nights, ending on New Year’s Eve. For an abbreviated version of Las Posadas, condense the event to one night, and have your young Joseph and Mary travel from room to room of your house.

Nacimientos: The making of Nativity scenes is a complex craft in Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Peru, and other South American countries. Entire miniature villages surround the empty manger. There are vendors with vegetable carts, women making tortillas, and farmers milking cows. Scenes from other Bible stories are sometimes incorporated, as are mountains, waterfalls, and the occasional, unlikely covering of snow. On Christmas Eve, a “godparent” gently places a figure of the Baby Jesus in the scene’s manger.

Day of the Three Kings: The major day of gift-giving in Panama, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Paraguay is January 6, the date that the Three Wise Men supposedly brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Christ Child. In some countries, children leave their shoes outside the door the night before, along with some straw for the Magi’s camels. If they’ve been good, the next morning they’ll find the presents they’ve been hoping for. If not, they find lumps of coal in their shoes.

Rochelle Green is a freelance writer and editor living in Connecticut.


Celebrating Kwanzaa

Finding Strength in a Shared History

Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday, but it draws on ancient African traditions. The festival was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, Ph.D., an African-American educator, to enrich black culture with African traditions and values. Dr. Karenga built Kwanzaa around seven principles: the unity of family and community; self-determination; working collectively to achieve success; supporting black-owned businesses; acting with purpose to improve the future; using creativity to bring beauty to the world; and believing in the struggle to build a better life for African Americans.

The festival begins December 26 and lasts seven days. Each day the family gathers to light candles, discuss the meaning of that day’s Kwanzaa principle, and drink from the “unity cup.” Kwanzaa is now celebrated in millions of American homes and in many community gatherings. To bring Kwanzaa into your home:

  • Prepare a table with the seven symbols of Kwanzaa. Cover a table with a black or green cloth, topped by a straw or handmade mkeka (mat). On the mat, place fruits and vegetable to celebrate the African harvest; a unity cup, from which everyone will drink to show community; a kinara, a candle holder that symbolizes African-American ancestors; seven candles, which represent the principles of Kwanzaa; an ear of dried corn for each child; and gifts.
  • Light the kinara candles. The kinara is set up with three red candles on the left, three green candles on the right, and a black one in the center. On the first night of Kwanzaa, light the black candle. The second night, light the black one, plus the farthest red candle. The third night, add the farthest green one. Continue the pattern each night, alternating colors, until all candles are glowing.
  • Choose gifts in the spirit of the holiday. It’s customary to give children books or educational toys, heritage symbols, handmade items, or family keepsakes. Gifts are usually given on the sixth day.
  • On the sixth day, hold a feast. Gather friends and family to celebrate the holiday. Invite them to share their creativity—the principle of the day—by performing plays, reading poems, and telling stories.
  • Shout “Harambee!” (“Let’s all pull together”) seven times, in honor of the seven beliefs of Kwanzaa.
  • Rochelle Green is a freelance writer and editor living in Connecticut.


    Celebrating Russian Christmas

    A Tradition Returns

    With the revolution of 1917, Communist rule brought an end to open religious expression in Russia, and Christmas was largely replaced by the Festival of Winter. The Christmas tree, decorated with tangerines and dolls made of dried fruit, became the New Year’s tree. Grandfather Frost, a slender, blue-robed figure said to travel door-to-door in a troika (a sleigh drawn by three horses), brought gifts for all on New Year’s Eve.

    Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russians have been free to celebrate Christmas as they wish. New Year’s remains a favorite gift-giving holiday, but millions of Russians are returning to the rituals and traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which observes Christmas on January 7. The meatless meal that Orthodox Christians eat after a day of fasting on Christmas Eve—known as the Holy Supper—is rich in symbols that honor the Christmas story. A white tablecloth represents Christ’s swaddling clothes; hay is strewn across the table as a reminder of the manger; a tall white candle symbolizes Christ as “the light of the world.”

    Traditionally, the meal consists of 12 foods, in honor of the 12 apostles. These include pagach (a potato-cabbage bread), which is dipped in honey and garlic to represent the sweetness and the bitterness of life, and the most important dish of the meal, kutya, a porridge made of wheat berries (for hope) and honey and poppy seeds (for happiness and success).

    Rochelle Green is a freelance writer and editor living in Connecticut.


    Celebrating the Chinese New Year

    Lions and Dragons and Dumplings, Oh My

    In ancient times, according to legend, a fierce monster descended on a small Chinese village at the time of the New Year and threatened to destroy it. It returned the following winter, ravaging the village and terrorizing its people. By the third year, the villagers were ready: They hung red banners to ward off evil, and made fearsome noises. The beast was scared away, and the town celebrated for days. Chinese New Year is still celebrated with firecrackers, banners, parades, and feasts to protect against evil, prepare for a fresh start, and to herald the arrival of spring.

    Also called the Lunar New Year, the holiday begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice, usually in late January or early February. In 2005 it begins on February 9, ushering in the Year of the Rooster. The celebration ends 15 days later with the Lantern Festival, a spectacular procession featuring musicians, clowns, martial arts clubs, and a long, fierce dragon.

    Preparations for the New Year begin well in advance, marked by traditions rich in symbolism and superstition. Families clean the house from top to bottom to sweep out bad luck at the start of the holiday. People buy new clothes and pay off debts. It’s customary to get a haircut before the holiday, because the Chinese word for hair is similar to the word for prosperity, and you don’t want to cut your prosperity as the year is starting.

    To celebrate Chinese New Year:

    • Fill your home with fruit and plants. Oranges represent wealth; tangerines with leaves are good luck. A plant that blooms on New Year’s Day brings good fortune.
    • Let the kids stay up late on New Year’s Eve. According to an old saying, the longer the children stay up, the longer their parents will live.
    • Invite friends and family to a New Year’s feast. Serve symbolic foods: a whole fish, for bounty; dried oysters, for a successful business; fried dumplings, which resemble golden coins.
    • Decorate your home with chun lian—couplets offering good wishes—written in Chinese characters on red paper. For printable chun lian, go to
    • Give your children small red envelopes, called lai see or hong-bao, with lucky money tucked inside.
    • Contact local Chinese organizations to find out where you can see a Lion Dance or Lantern Festival.

    Rochelle Green is a freelance writer and editor living in Connecticut.

    The Gifts of a Precious Connection

    In an open adoption, what do you give to the person who means everything to you? Thoughts from a birthmom about the gifts that mean the most.
    by Jennifer Davidson

    As I strolled through department store aisles brimming with yuletide cheer, my attention wandered from the brightly-packaged merchandise. I knew this wasn’t where I’d find presents for my birthson, Colin, and his adoptive parents. For us, gift-giving is a way to reflect, reconnect, and reconfirm the special relationship we have with one another. The gifts we exchange are personal, usually simple, and often eloquent in affirming that we are family and always will be.

    Eight years ago, as we began our brand-new, open-adoption relationship, Michael, Renée, and I agreed that we would honor one another on special occasions with gifts that were heartfelt, without being extravagant. On Mother’s Day of that year, when I was three months pregnant with Colin, Renée gave me a silver heart necklace identical to the one she wore herself. With tears in her eyes, she said she would have them both engraved with Colin’s name and birthdate after he was born. The gift meant that this child would always belong to both of us, and I was deeply moved.

    Over the years I have received many meaningful gifts from Colin and his parents, which I keep in a box that’s tucked away in a corner of my bedroom closet. Occasionally, I open the box and go through it, ritually touching, smelling, and absorbing its sacred contents. My fingers trace Colin’s artwork and I smell the pressed flower he picked for me one Sunday afternoon. I place my palm over his tiny handprint in the book, Watership Down, which Renée read to him when he was an infant. And I touch the cool, smooth curves of the stone frog that Colin chose for me, amazed again that he picked the very same frog I had chosen to give my husband. These gifts are a precious connection to my son, a connection I thought I’d lost the day I went home from the hospital alone.

    A bit of myself

    The gifts I choose for Colin are meant to symbolize my love and commitment, to strengthen our bond, and to express my presence in his life. They are things I alone can give him—stories of my pregnancy, connections to his biological family, and my answers, when he’s ready, about the choice I made. I offer him the heritage of our Hungarian ancestors, just as his birthfather, Pat, can share his African-American roots with him.

    Soon after Colin was born, Pat and I made a scrapbook for him about ourselves, to give him some insight into who we are. We wrote of our childhoods, shared poems and stories we’d written, and included photos of Pat’s paintings.

    For Colin’s fifth birthday, I wrote a poem about how I had saved 11 tadpoles while pregnant with him. And two years ago, for Christmas, I sent him bird and squirrel feeders like those in my backyard. On the accompanying card, I wrote that I had chosen these gifts so that whenever he misses me, he can look out his window and know we are seeing the same thing, on the same day. My gift said, "I will never leave you. I simply could not raise you."

    Colin’s parents and I share many values, and I’m pleased that they’re raising him to appreciate my gifts for the love with which they’re chosen. Last Christmas, Renée suggested that I share with Colin my passion for hermit crabs. It was a thrill to watch him excitedly select tiny crustaceans from the pet store tank. And though these creatures were my present to him, I knew that the greater gift—to both of us—was from Michael and Renée, who encouraged me to share a part of myself with our son.

    Jennifer Davidson is a freelance writer in Northern California.

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